Some of the nicest moments I've experienced have occurred when I've unexpectedly fallen into conversations with older people in the mood to talk about their memories. Sometimes the content of these exchanges is interesting, sometimes not. However, it isn't so much the details of the interchanges that make them so agreeable, but rather the pleasant atmosphere that often encapsulates them, a vibe of dreamy recollection that both focuses and soothes the mind.
A new book by Tucsonan Mary Ellen Barnes offers a similar kind of experience. The Road to Mount Lemmon: A Father, a Family, and the Making of Summerhaven is a neighborly, front-porch chat of a memoir, chronicling Barnes' early years in a family that was deeply involved in the development of Mount Lemmon's rustic Summerhaven community. Like a cozy evening confab, it meanders from topic to topic—a bit of Mount Lemmon history here, a family vignette there—pausing occasionally to savor certain memories and philosophize. Readers will likely find some of the stories captivating, and others less so, but most will undoubtedly appreciate the book's reflective spirit that vividly conveys Barnes' love for the Catalina Mountains and her father.
Barnes' father, a multifaceted go-getter named Tony Zimmerman, grew up on the plains of Kansas. When he was 20, he moved to east-central Arizona to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. He married, started a family and, a few years later, moved to Tucson and continued teaching.
In 1937, he had a life-changing experience. Accompanying his school principal on a hunting trip to the Catalina Mountains, Zimmerman fell in love—with the mountains, not the principal. By 1940, the Zimmerman clan began spending every summer on Mount Lemmon, and in 1943, Zimmerman retired from teaching to devote himself full-time to the mountain.
In the early 1880s, California botanist John Lemmon, combing the Catalinas with his wife for new forms of flora, named the highest peak for her. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the mountain was primarily the domain of miners, homesteaders, hunters, bootleggers and summer visitors. However, by the time Zimmerman launched his midlife alpine odyssey, Summerhaven was beginning to evolve into what would become a small, year-round community. Zimmerman played a pivotal role in its growth: buying property; selling real estate; building cabins; and operating a store, hotel, restaurant and sawmill.
The Zimmermans kept their house in Tucson, but Barnes spent much of her time on the mountain, reveling in a multitude of idyllic adventures: hanging with her dad; hiking; daydreaming; swimming; painting; sledding; horseback-riding; working in the family businesses; developing friendships with cowboys, firefighters and forest rangers; attending dances; experiencing her first romantic stirrings; and, at times, slipping into an almost mystical attunement with nature.
Anecdotes sprout in her narrative like mushrooms after a heavy mountain rain. Some of them have a certain folksy charm—like depictions of colorful mountain characters. Many, however, are simply half-formulated musings or wispy recollections of mundane events.
This book does impart an avalanche of facts about the history of the Catalinas. We learn that Mount Bigelow was named after a cavalry officer, stationed at Fort Huachuca, who chased Geronimo around the Southwest; the first phone line went up the mountain in 1911; an official post office was established in Summerhaven in the mid-'40s; the road to Mount Lemmon, originally called the General Hitchcock Highway after an editor for the Tucson Citizen who had been a U.S. postmaster general, was built largely by prison labor; and a radar base existed from 1956 to 1970 on the site of the present-day Steward Observatory, staffed by military personnel on the lookout for Soviet aircraft.
Zimmerman remained a charismatic force on the mountain for nearly four decades. Irrepressible to the end, he died in 1996, at nearly 104, several years before the devastating 2003 Aspen Fire wiped out much of the tangible evidence of his impact on Mount Lemmon.
Barnes is a solid writer with an eye for detail and a gift for sparkling prose. This book, however, despite its ambitious effort, lacks a sense of completeness; the loose group of sketches seems more like context for a larger, perhaps fictional, work. Still, for those interested in Southern Arizona lore and warm-hearted nostalgia, Barnes' remembrances should provide an informative and enjoyable read.